To gauge how far a pair of sophomores on Newton’s boys basketball team have come this year, one would need only to look back a couple of weeks to the Rams’ Region 8-AAAAAAA tournament championship weekend.
In its 75-61 revenge win against Shiloh — the only team this season able to put a digit in the “L” column for Newton — it was sophomore Colby Rogers who drilled several big shots early and in the midway point of the game to help fend off any run the Generals tried to mount.
It was the kind of game that allowed you to see the flashes off excellence Rogers is capable of — perhaps putting you in the mind of a younger J.D. Notae, as far as shooting goes.
But maybe an even more telling example could be found the night before in the region tourney semifinals where Newton spent most of the night on the ropes, trailing against an inspired South Gwinnett squad.
That is, until sophomore post player Armani Harris grabbed a rebound, put up a reverse lay-in, made the shot and drew the foul. Harris celebrated with a mighty fist pump and yell, as the basket gave Newton a rare lead, albeit one it would never relinquish.
And the 6-foot-5 sophomore still remembers Newton head coach Rick Rasmussen’s response when he came back to the sideline during a time out shortly after.
“He gave me a big dap and said, ‘Look at our sophomores rising up,’” Harris said, a slight smile forming as he recalled the moment.
It’s easy to get lost in the exploits of top-ranked Newton’s big three of seniors J.D. Notae and Isaiah Miller, not to mention point guard Ashton Hagans who is also a sophomore, albeit one who’s already regarded as one of the nation’s top players.
But Rogers and Harris have willingly settled into their background roles, because they understand how much they can learn from three elite players — even though Rasmussen says they have the skill to contribute majorly on a regular basis.
“We are a deep team, and they could definitely start on other teams,” Rasmussen said. “They’re both very good sophomores, with very bright futures. They’re maturing, improving and growing. They’re developing a more consistent work ethic and looking better in practice. What you’re seeing in the games now is a microcosm of how they’re working behind the scenes.”
Of course, the focus right now is on winning a state championship after coming up short in the semifinals last year against Westlake — the same Westlake who will come to Newton for a Thursday night 7 p.m. tip in the state tournament’s second round.
“Me and Colby, we’re young, and we have a chance to help a great group of guys who are about to graduate win a state championship,” Harris said.
Both he and Rogers say it’s pointless to whine and pine about not getting starter’s playing time when they know how much they can glean from Newton’s current stars.
“Being with these guys like Isaiah and J.D. and Josh (Tukes) and Ashton, it definitely makes me better as a player to go up against them every day in practice,” Rogers said. “The only way you can get better is to play against people who are as good as you or better than you. They have a way of bringing the best out of you.”
Harris said specifically the time he spends with 6-foot-6 senior center Josh Tukes in between games has helped him get the mechanics of his game down pact.
“Tukes shows me a lot of big man drills,” Harris said. “We compete and make each other better. He’s been teaching me how to manage my footwork. And then with Ashton, we’ve been playing together since our days at Clemons Middle School. We always get better and make each other better every time we play.”
For Rogers, he recognizes the correlation between his improved play and his coach’s increased confidence in him.
“Freshman year, I was barely getting in,” Rogers said. “I was getting the crumbs. But now, I’m a sixth or seventh man behind Dante (Johnson), but I’m still getting more minutes on the court.”
Rogers also nailed a couple of big shots in Newton’s 100-72 win against Peachtree Ridge last Friday in round one of the state tournament. And even though he knows its that much ballyhooed starting five that gets all the pub, Rogers said he realizes just how crucial his and Harris’ roles are.
“It always feels good to get on the court, especially in clutch times and crunch times,” he said. “I try to bring my best, because if I don’t, it might cost us the game. And I don’t want that has a player.”
Said Harris: “Knowing that I’m getting in more, it gives me more mental focus. It’s not about how much playing time you get, but it’s about doing your best and going your hardest out there. It’s about knowing you’re playing varsity basketball now, at the highest level.”
Although there’s still unfinished business to be dealt with in the here-and-now — namely getting past Westlake Thursday night, and cutting down the nets after a state title — the sophomore pair does allow their minds to drift to thoughts of next year when sophomores like Hagans, Rogers and Harris could become the beginning of a new Newton “big three.”
And according to Rogers and Harris, don’t expect much of a decline next season.
“Actually, no, I don’t think there will be much,” Rogers said. “I think the guys coming up after the seniors leave are gonna be a good group of guys. We’ve already got a certain type of chemistry with each other. I’ve seen Armani getting better, stronger and more physical. He’s found his role. We may not be as good as the guys we have have now, but I don’t see a total drop off where it’s going to be a dramatic difference.”
Harris doesn’t see it either.
“I think players like Colby, me, Tyrese (Brown) and more know it’ll be our time to step up and make each other better to make a great season. I want to be able to be that leader and show the next group of guys coming up what it means to be a Newton Ram. You never know what can happen.”